By Lee Chin Wee (14A01B)
Additional reporting done by Bryan Chua (14A01A)
The following is a continuation of Raffles Press’ feature, Please Mind the Platform Gap: Choosing Subject Combinations. You can find the first part of the feature on Science combinations here.
HELM, GELM, H/GELx
(H = History, G = Geography, E = Econs, L = Literature, M = Maths, x = Other contrasting subject such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, KI, etc. It is also possible to take up ELL and/or a Third Language as an Arts subject)
Welcome, brave adventurer, to the path less worn and the journey less traveled. Remember to pay attention when trudging along this trail – that blue thrush in the distance will become important later on (why a thrush, anyway? Couldn’t the poet have written about a finch, or a flamingo?) . The imposing, weathered trees that loom all around you were merely saplings when Ho Chi Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The branded hiking shoes on your feet are the product of a free, capitalist economic system. The study of the Arts is not the interrogation of static facts. Rather, it is the study of perspectives – of new ways to observe the world around us, and to make sense of the structures we have created for ourselves.
General things to consider:
First, do ask yourself why you are even considering becoming an Arts student. Much like an essay marking scheme, there is no one definitively right answer you should arrive at, but there definitely are many wrong ones. If you want to enter the Arts stream under the illusion that obtaining an ‘A’ will be far easier and more expedient than if you were to be a Science student, then think again.
While the high pass and distinction rates for Arts subjects may appear incredibly alluring at first glance, do take note that the take-up rate for an Arts subject combination is also far lower than that of a Science/hybrid combination. If it were really so easy to ace your examinations, wouldn’t the secret to instant success have leaked out much earlier? Surely there can’t be so many wannabe doctors in RI that would be willing to sacrifice a steady stream of distinctions in exchange for mediocre science grades!
If you are considering becoming an Arts student, a natural flair for the English language and a predisposition towards the discipline(s) would be an obvious bonus. The primary mode through which you will be assessed, after all, is essay-writing. Lots and lots of essay-writing, believe me. This means that if you are already a voracious reader and someone who can easily parse his/her thoughts into clear thesis statements, the Arts may be a natural fit. This, however, doesn’t mean that you should completely rule out taking the Arts if you are slightly weaker at expressing yourself or are the sort not to read up about Economics in advance – just be aware of the potential challenges you may face, and remember that getting ‘D’s and ‘C’s in the beginning does not necessarily spell doom for your results come the dreaded A Level Results Release day (assuming, of course, that you have actually put in effort to revise your work).
And yes, for those of you out there who are still wondering, you have to take Literature in order to qualify for the Humanities Programme (more on that later). While it is theoretically possible for one to take a combination like HGEM (History, Geog, Economics, Math), such an inhumane collection of subjects has been rumoured to be potentially hazardous to one’s health, given the sheer amount of content covered in both History and Geography. Literature is deemed to be a ‘core Humanities subject’ by both the school and the Ministry of Education, and is thus a shared subject between all HP students. If you feel daunted at the prospect of studying Literature at a higher level, do consider the alternative combinations available to you, as ELL or a Third Language are suitably close substitutes for Literature in an Arts stream combination.
By the way, the caricature that students who enter the Arts stream only have a career as avant garde artists, struggling to make ends meet in-between postmodern paintings or poems is just a convenient myth – there are a wealth of career options available to Arts students, ranging from the more conventional (lawyers, civil servants, academics, politicians, bankers) to the amazingly exciting (media personalities, film-makers, advertising consultants, entrepreneurs, diplomats). You’ll probably have zero chance of ever becoming an A* Researcher or a Nobel Chemistry Prize laureate though. But if you’re seriously considering taking the Arts, that probably never did appeal to you anyway.
Step 1: Why the Arts?
It’s no secret that students who opt for the Arts stream are a minority here in RI (Year 5-6), and that this already small percentage dwindles even further when one surveys the other tertiary institutions in Singapore. The Humanities are often criticised for being qualitatively assessed (as though that’s somehow a bad thing), for favouring ‘natural talent’ over the ‘hard grind’, and for simply being inapplicable in our working lives. After all, who wants to be reading storybooks when there is actual learning about the Higgs-Boson particle to be done?
As with any entrenched perception, there is indeed a kernel of truth in these statements. Unlike subjects like Chemistry and Math, where we are essentially tasked with moving from a static Point A to Point B by applying the appropriate concepts, the Arts require one to engage in a broader discussion of the topic at hand. This inevitably means that responses are not graded based on a strict right/wrong dichotomy, but are rather marked on the cogence and accuracy of argumentation. Due to the nature of Arts subjects, this author believes that your grades for Arts subjects are largely decided in the first 15 minutes of the exam. If you can grasp exactly what the question demands of you, and then come up with a solid essay framework that crystallises your understanding of the topic, an A or a B should be within reach. To quote my Economics teacher, however, this isn’t necessary a bad thing – “it’s just a thing.” The Arts call for a slightly different skill set, one that is more focused on effective expression and clarity of evaluative argumentation – like GP on steroids!
“With reference to the period 1948–2000, why has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not been resolved?”
– Question 3 of the 2010 International History Promo Paper
Another common gripe is that Arts subjects disproportionately favour students with an ‘inherent flair’ for language, or those with an ‘argumentative streak’. Well, this isn’t entirely dissimilar with how individuals who have a natural affinity for, say, Physics also tend to dominate the Dean’s List on a regular basis! The truth is that what we would casually dismiss as ‘natural talent’ actually conceals hours of intellectual training beyond curriculum requirements. The person who didn’t study for the Literature exam often spends most of his or her free time poring through literary texts or subconsciously analyzing language while reading RJ Confessions. The braggart who claims that less than an hour was spent revising International History could be the most enthusiastic reader of Foreign Affairs you know. Remember this: what we claim to be ‘natural talent’ isn’t just coded in one’s DNA, but rather the product of an individual’s daily habits and responsible intellectual development. This supposed ‘flair’ can be developed over time – that’s what your tutors are here for.
Finally (and I’d admit, this is my favourite myth), your parents might have told you that the Arts stream teaches you to do nothing more than access your emotions and write poems. Well if it were that straightforward, I would already be acing all my examinations – why read up about Sukarno’s Guided Democracy when I can simply write ‘Sukarno makes me feel sad, because he represents the nadir of Indonesian politics’? It’s because you’ll probably fail if you tried to inject your personal emotions and unload your vocabulary shotgun without engaging in honest, rigorous analysis. Being sensitive to the concerns addressed in a Victorian poem, or having an incredible command of the English language will be pointless if you are unwilling to apply the core concepts taught in class. Literature is the study of how language is manipulated to convey meaning. History gives us the ability to unpack past events and distill them into discrete factors. Geography examines the synergy between Man and his environment. Economics provides an entirely new frame for thinking and calculations. If these skills weren’t relevant in the modern workplace, the Ministry of Education would have abolished all Arts subjects years ago.
Step 2: To HP, or not to HP?
In case you didn’t already know, in RI (Year 5–6), Arts students are split between the Humanities Programme (HP) and the Arts Stream. The two programmes are run separately, and are manned by distinct group of teachers with some degree of overlap – there are teachers dedicated solely to teaching HP classes, while there are teachers who teach only Arts classes. For some subjects like Math, or sub-topics like Southeast Asian History, lecturers and tutors do teach both the Arts and the Humanities Programme classes. The HP classes are also housed in J Block, which is the school block nearest to the Marymount Gate (our home rooms are above the Performing Arts Centre), while the Arts classes have lessons in Block A and B, which are arguably the main academic blocks in the school.
The decision to join HP or the Arts stream is not something that you should just decide on a whim. HP students do enjoy the advantage of having fixed home rooms, that basically serve as classrooms for the next year or two. On paper, the biggest highlights of the Humanities Programme are the overseas learning opportunities provided – the end-year HP trip to any Asian nation of our choosing is something we eagerly look forward to (we’re going to Bhutan this year), and HP students get to sign up for enriching trips like the summer school experience at Sciences Po, Paris, in the middle of the year. In my opinion though, the biggest draw of the Humanities Programme is the invaluable friendships you will forge over the course of your JC life, as you meet colourful, like-minded individuals who share the same burning passion for the Humanities.
However, being in the Humanities Programme also entails some degree of separation from the rest of the school population, due to our geographical distance from the main school blocks, and the self-contained nature of the J Block facilities. The Arts stream is probably more tightly integrated with the larger school population, and you get to rub shoulders with your secondary school friends who opted for the Science stream on a far more regular basis. Apart from the HP trip that takes place at the end of the year, Arts students get to sign up for the same courses that are open to HP students, and study the same broad curriculum.
If you would like to be part of the HP, selections are done through the Raffles Humanities Award (otherwise known as the RHA) as well as the MOE Humanities Scholarship. While the deadline for RHA selections should already have been closed, you may register for the MOE Humanities Scholarship through their online portal later this month. Here’s how it works: if you have been awarded the RHA, you will also be offered a confirmed place in the Humanities Programme along with the scholarship money, which will go toward subsidizing your year-end HP trip. If you are shortlisted for the MOE Humanities Scholarship (the most basic criterion is being a Singapore Citizen or a PR), you will also be offered a place in the Humanities Programme, even if you do not eventually receive the MOE Humanities Scholarship in the end. Of course, don’t automatically bite the bait and agree to join the HP without first obtaining a better understanding of what it entails. Ask your seniors, your peers and your teachers for their opinions before making your final decision!
Step 3: The History/Geography Conundrum
A vast majority of Arts students take both Literature and Economics, as many feel that Literature is a core component of the JC Arts curriculum, while Economics is perceived to be the Arts subject that entails the greatest amount of real world applicability. This usually leaves your third H2 slot to be filled by either History or Geography, a choice which many Arts students do have some difficulty making.
If you have studied either History or Geography during the latter half of your secondary school life, then the intuitive decision would be to carry on with your chosen discipline – after all, the foundations that have been laid over the last four years of your education should serve you well when making the intellectual leap from secondary school to junior college. If, however, you feel that you would be better off switching subjects, then don’t let this general principle limit your choice. There are certain skill-sets that are easily transferable between disciplines (such as good essay-writing habits) that will ease this transition. I personally know a batchmate who suddenly decided to switch from studying Geography to History three weeks before the Year 5 Common Test, and still managed a solid B.
Now, assuming that you have either studied both Geography and History or neither subject back in secondary school, the way forward does become less clear. Both subjects are probably the most content-heavy disciplines at the H2 level, with Geography split into Physical Geography and Human Geography, while History is divided into International History and Southeast Asian History. Make no mistake, these sub-topics could very easily be subjects in their own right, with SEAhist perhaps containing as much content for one to digest as the whole of JC Economics. You should select the subject that you think you are most likely to have a sustained passion in, based on the course material covered. (For Geography, the SEAB curriculum can be found here, while for History, the document can be found here.) The more you read and find out about these subjects, the more informed a choice you can thus make when faced with such a choice!
Step 4: Remember to have a balanced diet
Thanks to policymakers who believe that all students should have a holistic tertiary education, you will be required to select a non-Arts subject to fill up your final H2/H1 slot. Given this reality, an overwhelming majority of Arts students opt to study H2/H1 Math as their contrasting subject. The reason for such a decision is an incredibly compelling, albeit pragmatic one – a staggering range of local and foreign universities list at least a distinction in H1 Math as a non-negotiable prerequisite for many of their courses. The Economics and Law double degree programme in NUS, for instance, sets a “H2 pass in Mathematics AND good overall A level results” to be one of the minimum benchmarks that applicants should be able to meet. This author would highly encourage aspiring Arts students to pick Math as their contrasting subjects, even in spite of his own Mathematical ineptitude.
The life of an Arts student in RI (Year 5-6) is not one that is governed by formulae and figures, but one that is shaped by very human experiences. Walk down this path only if you truly are prepared to – but rest assured that you’ll be in for a deeply enriching and fulfilling experience.
Reports of Literature’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Official SEAB website syllabus: https://www.seab.gov.sg/pages/nationalExaminations/GAL/School_Candidates/syllabus/gce-a-level-syllabuses-examined-in-2019
NUS Course Prerequisites: http://www.nus.edu.sg/oam/apply/local/prerequisites/BYA-prerequisites.html
Read more on subject combinations here: http://rafflespress.com/2012/10/22/please-mind-the-platform-gap-subject-combinations/"Please Mind the Platform Gap: Choosing Subject Combinations (Part 2) – The Arts Combinations",